Acupuncture May Help Chemotherapy Side Effects
Dec. 5, 2000 -- Nausea and vomiting -- never a lot of fun --
can be among the most distressing and disabling side effects of chemotherapy
for breast cancer patients. Now, researchers at the NIH have shown that a
variation of the traditional Oriental medical practice of acupuncture, along
with commonly used medications, may help.
"The results of our study suggest that among patients
receiving high-dose chemotherapy, electroacupuncture was more effective in
controlling vomiting than just medication alone," says Joannie Shen, MD,
MPH, research associate at the NIH, whose study appears in the Dec. 6, 2000
edition of TheJournal of the American Medical Association.
Electroacupuncture uses a mild electric current passed through traditional
acupuncture needles placed lightly into specific points on the body.
However, it's not known from the study whether acupuncture
would be as effective in women receiving standard dose-chemotherapy, she tells
In the study, over 100 breast cancer patients receiving
high-dose chemotherapy all received drugs commonly used to control nausea and
vomiting. But one group of women also received electroacupuncture in addition
to the drugs, and another group received drugs and minimal needling -- a kind
of "sham" acupuncture intended to mimic the real thing. A third group
received only the drugs and no acupuncture, according to the report.
Shen and her colleagues found that those women who had received
electroacupuncture had fewer vomiting episodes than the women who only received
drugs. Even the women who got the "minimal needling" did somewhat
better than the women who only got drugs, she reports.
That suggests that some of the response to acupuncture could be
explained by the "placebo effect" -- the concept that some patients
will get better even without getting the real treatment, perhaps just from
receiving more attention from caregivers. However, the acupuncture and the
minimal needling was terminated at five days, and when Shen and colleagues went
back to look at how the patients were faring on the ninth day, there were no
longer significant differences between the three groups.
That's important, Shen says, because it supports the idea that
acupuncture really had an effect on the body. "We were skeptical at the
beginning, thinking that maybe it was just the extra attention, so that's why
we did the follow-up," Shen tells WebMD. "It's the strongest part of
Still, Shen notes that the placebo effect cannot be entirely
dismissed. As for the physical effects of acupuncture, Shen says scientists
believe that the ancient Chinese practice may have effects on neurotransmitters
-- chemicals in the brain that control the body's response to substances that
can cause vomiting.
Shen's study adds to a growing body of evidence. A 1997 NIH
Consensus Statement on Acupuncture stated that "promising results have
emerged" showing effectiveness of acupuncture in easing nausea and vomiting
after surgery and chemotherapy.